Monday, November 2, 2009

- First They Came (Pastor Martin Niemöller)

First They Came
First they came for the communists, 
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, 

And I did not speak out
Because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, 

And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, 

And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me

And there was no one left to speak out for me.

"First They Came" is a popular poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

Martin Niemöller was a German pastor and theologian born in Lippstadt, Germany, in 1892. Niemöller was an anti-Communist and supported Hitler's rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. He became the leader of a group of German clergymen opposed to Hitler.

Unlike Niemöller, they gave in to the Nazis' threats. Hitler personally detested Niemöller and in 1937 had him arrested and eventually confined in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Niemöller was released in 1945 by the Allies. He continued his career in Germany as a clergyman and as a leading voice of penance and reconciliation for the German people after World War II.

His poem is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy, as it often begins with specific and targeted fear and hatred which soon escalates out of control.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

I believe that to be fully human is to be willing to be responsible for one's neighbor; to look out for others; to dedicate oneself to the betterment of others.

The insidious thing about our human nature is that it is inherently selfish, not selfless. At times, I find selfishness is as powerful as the pull of gravity. Try jumping off of a building and not travelling rapidly towards the ground...that's what it sometimes feels like to me, trying to be others-focused. The intent may be there, but the natural tendency is to turn inwards towards self, and gratify everything our "self" wants, demands and needs.

Although some may naturally be always thinking of others, it seems painfully obvious that our culture's overwhelming trend is to think of  S-E-L-F.

Have you ever noticed that when someone does something especially noble or unusually altruistic (dictionary definition for altruistic: unselfishly concerned for or devoted to the welfare of others), something deep within you resonates with admiration and joy? Why is that? What is it in us that celebrates selflessness; that recognizes it as virtue?

Of course, there are individuals who are emotionally ill or psychologically unstable who would not see any special worthiness in being benevolent; nevertheless, I think the overwhelming majority of us recognize humanitarian acts of kindness as being worthy of notice.

Why is it that we are so deeply moved at the selfless action of another human being? What is it in the human psyche that resonates so deeply for the Mother Teresas of this world? Is it mere evolutionary reaction? Survival instinct? There is something so deep within us that leaps or rejoices when we see justice; see mercy extending from the hand of one to another.

One of the beauties of having a potentially life-threatening disease is that you begin taking life more seriously, and you learn all about evaluating the value of your activities; how you spend your time and how you invest your life's energies.

As I've mentioned, I'm in a group associated with the Jewish General Hospital, organized for women with newly diagnosed breast cancer. Other women in my group have said this same thing - that in some ways, getting cancer was a good thing for them, because it has given them a fresh perspective on life and taught them the value of time.

I've realized through this experience with cancer that I can't take life for granted - can't assume I'll always have unlimited amounts of time available to do my living. As a person of faith, I feel I have a responsibility to map out my time investments wisely, ensuring that my ultimate goal is firstly, to please and honor God, and secondly, to use my gifts and abilities to serve others, not myself, and to ensure I don't get busy building my own little empire.

We humans are very good at empire-building, but sometimes it takes a serious illness to force us to look at the futility of all of that.

In the end, we take nothing with us, do we? Someone once said he never saw a hearse pulling a U-Haul to the cemetery. We really can't take it with us, so we may as well figure out a way to share our wealth (both physical and otherwise) in the best way possible before we leave this earth.

Some of us will leave earth sooner than others. Some of us will leave with not much more than we started with. A few friends and family will mourn our departure, but they will ultimately get on with their lives, and  - perish the thought - perhaps our absence will not be that noticeable.

And others will leave a rich, lovely legacy of selflessness....a myriad of gentle and humble acts of servanthood  that sweetened the lives of those around them; that left a fragrance of kindness and compassion here on earth before their departure.

Here's the song "Hands" by Jewel  (not "Jewels" as it says below).

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